Business Psychology - Latest Findings

Article No. 198
Business Practice Findings, by James Larsen, Ph.D.

Culture Clash

An analysis of cultural traits explains differences in conflict resolution strategies.

U.S. managers in international trade report two recurring annoyances that caught the attention of Catherine Tinsley of Georgetown University. When they're trying to settle disputes, American managers often find that German managers insist upon discussing bureaucratic regulations, while Japanese managers repeatedly seek the advice of their superiors. These behaviors aggravate American managers who fail to understand why they occur and find that they frustrate agreements.

American managers are trained to search for ways to integrate interests when parties find themselves in disputes. They ask questions to discover the reasons for the other party's position. They share information about their own interests, and they brainstorm to discover novel, innovative resolutions that bridge all parties' interests. Their goal is to find the best resolution of all parties' underlying concerns so everyone will find that an agreement is preferable to no agreement, and they will abide by it to satisfy their own self interests.

This approach in settling disputes is known as the "integrating interests" model, and American managers are often surprised when their bargaining counterparts in other countries are not only unfamiliar with it, but also reluctant to learn more about it.

Professor Tinsley was curious. If Japanese and German managers aren't settling disputes by trying to integrate interests, what models of conflict resolution are they using and why?

Tinsley studied 116 Japanese managers, 157 German managers, and 123 Americans. She found that the Japanese did indeed favor a different model that she called "deferring to status power," while the Germans favored one she labeled "applying regulations."

With the "deferring to status power" model, parties resolve disputes by determining who is more powerful. The more powerful party can create and enforce a favorable resolution. Managers using this model often seek the advice of high status figures and try to evaluate the status of other parties. They may also justify their position with a reference to their own status or to the status of others who favor the same position.

Parties resolving disputes with the "applying regulations" model rely upon existing regulations to shape agreements. They often disagree about which regulations apply, and they will reject a claim by insisting the cited regulation has been mistakenly applied to the dispute. Their goal is to find standardized procedures that favor their position and to win the compliance of all parties to follow them.

The Japanese and Germans are different, but why? Tinsley suspected culture, so she consulted an authoritative source that described qualities of cultures and selected three traits she expected to explain the differences: accepted social inequality, a preference for explicit contracts, and an attraction to varied, simultaneous activities.

She expected Japanese managers to display strong tendencies of the first cultural trait, Germans the second, and Americans the third. Her research found exactly that.

The Japanese managers embraced large differences in social status and expected these differences to govern social interaction. Recall that 100 years ago Japan was a feudal society, and they still have an emperor (albeit one with little power).

The German managers preferred formal communication over informal communication, and they highly valued precise language. They expected social interaction to be regulated by standardized law that applied uniformly to all.

The American managers preferred to pursue multiple tasks simultaneously and to continually scan their surroundings looking for new opportunities. The free market governed their social interactions which led them to fluid, rapid change.

So cultural traits lead people to expect that social interactions will be governed in certain ways, and these expectations carry over into the models they fall back upon when disputes arise.

"But what's this got to do with us?" you ask. "How many of us have business trips planned to Japan or Germany?"

Think about your customers. Maybe you could use these insights out at your own cash registers this afternoon. Customers in America come from all parts of the world, and they display their cultural differences in their words and deeds. Armed with the insights from Tinsley's study, we might do a better job of recognizing and responding to unfamiliar actions and comments when disputes arise. Such an awareness can only improve our effectiveness in running our businesses.

Reference: Tinsley, Catherine (1998) Models of Conflict Resolution in Japanese, German, and American Cultures. Journal of Applied Psychology, 83 (2), 316-323.

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